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It’s time to stop working through lunch, because one of the best things you can do for your health and productivity is take a break.

Time really is money in the legal profession, and the pressure to keep up with huge workloads and meet billable-hour targets means squeezing in a lunch break every day can prove tricky – and seem unnecessary. But the thing is, even though it might feel like inhaling fast food at your desk or skipping lunch altogether will help you get more done, taking a proper break boosts your productivity and improves both your physical and mental health. 

The decline of lunch breaks

A recent Pollfish survey found almost one in five Australian workers powers through lunch without a break. When asked why, 75 per cent of respondents felt there was too much work to do and too few staff to share the burden. Others said it was because they felt guilty if they took a break or because it wasn’t in their organisation’s culture to pause for lunch. Research by The Australia Institute found 3.8 million people routinely don’t take a lunch break, with one in two saying it’s because they’re too busy. 

These behaviours are particularly evident in the legal profession where there’s a huge amount of personal and organisational pressure to work long hours and skip lunch, says Professor Rebecca Mitchell from the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Newcastle.

“There’s a lot of pressure to undertake work that’s seen as billable, and that leads to a culture where people are driven not to take breaks during work and perhaps to work more outside of normal working hours,” she says. 

You have to be able to decide what you’re going to do during your lunch break, and it needs to be relaxing. Taking a lunch break where you just have different obligations like collecting your dry cleaning or doing the grocery shopping is not relaxing.

PROFESSOR REBECCA MITCHELL

Why lunch breaks matter

Human beings are not robots, and we need regular breaks to help maintain concentration and energy levels during the day. In fact, a growing body of research shows that having a short break from your desk to eat lunch improves productivity in the afternoon. 

“Taking a lunch break doesn’t mean we are going to be less productive, because your productivity increases on the basis of taking that time,” says Mitchell. 

A recent study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that employees who took a lunch break experienced greater recovery from the demands of work and, consequently, were less exhausted and more engaged with work throughout the afternoon. Importantly, the lunch break had to be relaxing and employees needed to be in control of their lunchtime activities to reap the benefits. 

“It’s something that’s come out in lots of research – you have to be able to decide what you’re going to do during your lunch break, and it needs to be relaxing,” says Mitchell. 

“So taking a lunch break where you just have different obligations like collecting your dry cleaning or doing the grocery shopping is not relaxing.”

Beyond productivity, taking a lunch break helps to relieve stress and improve digestion, blood pressure and even sleep. If you spend some of your lunch break being active, you’ll help to reduce the long-term health risks of a sedentary lifestyle like diabetes, heart disease and depression. 

And the benefits last longer than one afternoon. Research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology found a good-quality lunch break was associated with decreased exhaustion and increased energy one year later. 

“It’s about a long-term deterioration of your energy and wellbeing or a long-term increase in your energy and wellbeing, depending on whether or not you take a lunch break,” says Mitchell. 

Health Statistic

What we eat is fuel for our body – if you provide the body with poor-quality fuel, it’s probably going to run that way. If you have a really busy job, you need high-quality fuel to keep the brain functioning.

TIM McMASTER, SPOKESPERSON, DIETITIANS ASSOCIATION OF AUSTRALIA

What to eat on your lunch break

What you eat for lunch matters just as much as what you do on your lunch break, says dietitian Tim McMaster, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.

“What we eat is fuel for our body – if you provide the body with poor-quality fuel, it’s probably going to run that way,” he says. 

“If you have a really busy job, you need high-quality fuel to keep the brain functioning.”

He says eating whole foods with minimal processing – fruit, vegetables, whole grain carbohydrates, lean meat and low-fat dairy products – helps to keep energy levels and mood stable during the afternoon. 

And eating a small lunch with regular snacks throughout the day can help to avoid the dreaded mid-afternoon slump. 

“For people with desk-bound jobs, it’s often better to have smaller meals,” says McMaster. 

“Sometimes what happens with the digestion of larger portions is your blood gets redirected from upper parts of the body into the digestive system and that can make you feel fatigued.”